Tag: Spain

Madrid Day Trip: The Walled City of Avila Spain

Madrid Day Trip: The Walled City of Avila Spain

Sometimes, when I conjure up images of medieval European towns, I think that my imagined version must be so much neater and more fanciful than the real deal. After all, how can city walls built in the twelfth century be as beautifully symmetrical and clean as a sand castle dumped from a mold on the beach? Then I visit places like the walled city of Avila and I realize that the reverse is true – the reality is so much better than anything I could have imagined.

The walled city of Avila looks like something from a fairy tale of old.
(Full disclosure: this is a stock photo of the walled city of Avila, courtesy of Pixabay, not my photo. It was snowy when I went – scroll down for my much less impressive winter photos.)

The Walled City of Avila is Rich in History

Avila has been inhabited as far back as the 5th century BC, when a people known as the Vettones lived there. They called it Obila (“High Mountain”) and built one of their strongest fortresses here. Then came the Romans, who called it Abila or Abela. Roman incfluences can still be seen today in the town’s layout. It is rectangular in shape, with two main streets intersecting at a public swuare, or forum, in the center.

After the fall of the Roman empire in the late fifth century, it became a stronghold of the Visigoths, then was conquered by the Moors. What followed was a series of repeated attacks by the northern Iberian Christian kingdoms in a spiritual/geographical tug of war. The city became virtually uninhabited due to the constant conflict.

However, in the late eleventh century, Avila was repopulated following its definitive reconquest by Raymond of Burgundy, the son-in-law of Alfonso VI of León and Castile.

The Walls

Not surprisingly, the main attraction at the walled city of Avila is, well, its walls. The walls of Avila, constructed in the 11th through 14th centuries, are the largest fully illuminated monument in the world. And I highly recommend seeing them at night. They are nothing short of spectacular:

The walls around the city of Avila enclose an area measuring about 77 acres, with a perimeter measuring 8, 256 feet. They are nearly 10 feet thick and include around 90 towers. The walls are considered the best-conserved example of their kind in the world.

Visitors to Avila can, weather permitting, walk along part of the wall. There are four entrance points, one of which is accessible for those with disabilities. However, the best views of the city walls are from the ground, where you can fully appreciate just how imposing they would appear to any would-be invaders.

The Cathedral of Avila

Considered the earliest example of Gothic cathedrals built in Spain, construction of the Cathedral of Avila began in 1107. Notice anything off about it? The cathedral may appear to be a bit lopsided, or it may seem like part of it’s missing. That’s because the south tower, which should be to the right of the entrance, was never built.

The church’s eastern apse was fully integrated with the city walls. In the night shot of the city walls above, the rounded part of the wall that is shown is the exterior of the church apse. Inside the church, we could see how thick the walls were by looking at the windows in that part of the church:

There were so many beautiful things to look at in the Cathedral of Avila. I especially loved the alabaster baptismal font, which depicted Jesus getting baptized by John the Baptist. It dates to 1514–1516.

Interestingly, the cathedral has a secret passage. Be sure you get the audio guide, which is included with the price of admission, to learn about the secret passage’s discovery and possible uses. The signs are in Spanish only.

The Basilica of San Vicente

Another notable church in the walled city of Avila is the Basilica de los Santos Hermanos Mártires, Vicente, Sabina y Cristeta, or Basilica of San Vicente for short. Christian martyrs and siblings Vicente, Sabina and Cristeta were martyred during the rule of the Roman Emperor Diocletian (284-305 A.D.). Their corpses were buried into the rock and much later this basilica was built over their tombs. 

The main attraction in the Basilica of San Vicente is the cenotaph honoring the three martyrs.

The cenotaph features scenes of the three martyrs lives and deaths. They had refused to sign a document acknowledging they had offered sacrifices to the Roman gods, hence their death sentence. Nearby, there is a stone slab in the floor with Hebrew symbols carved on it. The story goes that a Jew, also accused and faced with death, promised God that if he got free, he would convert to Christianity and provide the martyrs with a tomb.

basilica of san vicente in the walled city of avila - the grave of the jew who buried the martyrs

What to Eat in Avila

It seemed like every city we visited in Spain had its own special dessert. ponche segoviano in Segovia, mazapan in Toledo, and in Avila, yemas. Their more formal name is yemas de Santa Teresa. Now if you know Spanish, you may be aware that a yema is an egg yolk.

Occasionally, food will have a name that has nothing to do with what the food actually is. Toad-in-the-hole, for instance, has nothing to do with toads. Or even frogs. But yemas are, in fact, egg yolks.

They are, essentially, a soft boiled egg yolk that has been cooled and dusted with sugar. I tried it. It wasn’t bad. I also had a pastry in Madrid called a rosquilla de yema, which was a donut-like pastry with a sugary egg yolk glaze. Both items were surprisingly not gross. I don’t know that they would be my first choice for dessert, but they were nowhere near as disgusting as I feared they might be. Definitely worth a try if you’re feeling adventurous.

Why You Should Visit the Walled City of Avila

Hopefully you can see here that Avila not only looks great from the outside, but also has a rich history inside its walls. It is a perfect destination as a day trip from Madrid, and a lovely destination all its own. You can get to Avila from Madrid by train or bus, both of which run regularly on a daily basis.

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One of the Most Unusual Things to Do in Madrid

One of the Most Unusual Things to Do in Madrid

As strange as it may seem, one of the most unusual things to do in Madrid is to buy cookies at a local convent. Now, that may not sound unusual in and of itself, but trust me, it’s definitely one of the odder experiences I’ve had while traveling!

On our first night in Madrid, after we ate dinner at the Mercado San Miguel, we decided to explore the area. When we came upon the Monasterio del Corpus Christi, I remembered reading in a travel book that the nuns there sell cookies. But they do it in a top secret manner because they are not supposed to have contact with outsiders.

Getting In

When you arrive at the monastery, you will need to press a special doorbell to gain admittance. It’s fairly easy to miss the doorbell. For that matter, the whole monastery is pretty nondescript… you really have to be looking for it in order to find it.

Unusual things to do in Madrid - the doorbell that gives you access to the Monasterio del Corpus Christi

Once admitted into the monastery, you travel down a winding path to a small dark room.

The Transaction

A sign posted on the wall tells you what types of cookies you can buy:

Unusual Things to Do in Madrid - Buying Cookies at the Monasterio del Corpus Christi

Next to the sign you’ll see a little cubbyhole in the wall that houses a divided turntable. You have to tell the nuns what type of cookies you want and whether you want a kilo or a half kilo. (Note: not all of the varieties listed will be available.) Then place your money on the turntable and watch as it moves to the other side of the wall where you cannot see it.

A few minutes later, the turntable moves back to your side of the wall and voila! A box of cookies now sits where you placed your money.

Unusual Things to Do in Madrid - Tea Cookies from Monasterio del Corpus Christi

I ordered the tea cookies. They were kind of bland, and very expensive but pretty, and very fun to buy.

Unusual Things to Do in Madrid - Tea Cookies baked by the nuns at Monasterio del Corpus Christi

The Experience

It doesn’t always happen, but this time I actually had the forethought to record the experience for you! Take a look:

My Recommendation

It’s not about the cookies as much as it is about having a unique experience that very few places can offer. So, if you’re looking for unusual things to do in Madrid, this clandestine cookie shop should definitely be on your list!

The Monasterio del Corpus Christi sells cookies from 9:30-1:00 and 4:30-6:30 each day. It is located close to the Mercado de San Miguel, at Plaza del Conde de Miranda, 3. If you go, let me know what you thought of the experience!

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The Best Place to Eat in Madrid

The Best Place to Eat in Madrid

Hello! I am just back from a ten day visit to Madrid, Toledo, Avila and Segovia, Spain. My friend and I spent several days exploring the capital city, and we found ourselves going back to the Mercado San Miguel to eat over and over. So I thought I would share a little about it with you, and what makes it the best place to eat in Madrid.

The Best Place to Eat in Madrid is Convenient

The Mercado San Miguel is located just outside Madrid’s Plaza Mayor. This made it very convenient to get to, centrally located near so many other attractions. Especially convenient for us, since we were staying at an Airbnb on Plaza Mayor. Jet lag can be especially brutal when flying to Europe from the US, and we crashed hard after checking in. A few hours later, we woke up semi-rested and absolutely starving. The Mercado San Miguel was the first place we went.

But even if you aren’t staying at Plaza Mayor, the Mercado is conveniently located – just a five minute walk from the Ópera Metro station (Lines 2 & 5) or a ten minute walk from the Sol Metro station (Lines 1, 2, & 3). Its location is one major reason why it’s the best place to eat in Madrid.

The hours are convenient as well. Most days the Mercado San Miguel is open from 10:00 am until midnight (until 1:00 am Friday and Saturday nights). So during the afternoon dead zone when many stores are closed (roughly 2-5 pm), you can take a break and pop in to the Mercado for a quick bite or a leisurely couple of drinks.

The Best Place to Eat in Madrid Offers a Variety of Food & Drink

At first glance, the Mercado San Miguel is a big food court like you would see at an American shopping mall. Multiple vendors, each selling a different type of food, and a central seating area.

But it’s so much more than that.

From the mundane to the exotic, there is something for everyone at the Mercado San Miguel: Sangria. Italian. Vegetarian. Beer. Pastries. Seafood. Wine. Spanish. Vermouth. Mexican.

Whatever you want, you can find it at Mercado San Miguel!

The Best Place to Eat in Madrid is Affordable

The best place to eat in Madrid is affordable

Whether you’re in the mood for a snack, or you want a full meal, you can eat at Mercado San Miguel without breaking the bank. Sample a few things until you find what you like, or just dive right in and order what you want… it won’t cost a lot either way. Here are a few sample prices from my recent visit:

  • Croquetas/Croquettes – yummy, gooey fried cheese with or without bits of meat mixed in – €1.50 each.
  • Empanadas in all sorts of varieties, savory and sweet – €3.25 each.
  • Subs made with famous Iberian jamon (ham, but not like we think of it) – €6.

The Best Place to Eat in Madrid is a Great Place to Meet People

Best Place to Eat in Madrid is a Great Place to Meet People

I visited the Mercado San Miguel several times while I was in Madrid, and at all different times of day. Not once was it anything but packed with people. I shared a table with a group of German tourists enjoying tapas, met a fellow Baltimore Ravens fan who was looking for the taco stand, and talked with a trio of Italian ladies who had really enjoyed their sangria. 😉

Appreciation of good food is a common denominator that transcends language or culture. So there really is no better place in Madrid to meet people than the Mercado San Miguel. And no better circumstances than to do so while enjoying delicious food. And maybe a sangria.

Croquettes and Sangria at the Mercado San Miguel in Madrid

One Other Thing You Should Know

When you order food at Mercado San Miguel, keep your receipt! If you use the rest room while you’re there and you don’t have your receipt, you will need to pay for access to the toilets.

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